Working at Amazon warehouses is notoriously punishing on the body. Jobs often require workers to lift, carry, twist, bend, and perform repetitive motions, and the company enforces a breakneck pace by digitally monitoring workers’ rate of production and the amount of time they’re not working (beyond their legally required lunch break). Workers who fail to hit their targets face discipline and eventually termination. No wonder so many are injured on the job: While the warehousing industry has injury rates 2.6 times the average for all private industries, Amazon’s rate is double the warehouse industry average. And yet Amazon has received a light touch from government safety regulators for repetitive-motion and pace-of-work violations—until now.
Washington state’s Department of Labor and Industries on Monday fined Amazon $60,000 for willful violations of the state’s occupational safety and health laws, after an inspection of the company’s fulfillment center in Kent found myriad examples of tasks that “create a serious hazard” for back, shoulder, wrist, and knee injuries. “Workers are required to perform these tasks at such a fast pace that it increases the risk of injury,” the agency said in a press release, noting that it has already cited Amazon for “similar violations” at three locations in the state. “The company is aware of these hazards. Therefore, the most recent violation is classified as a willful violation and comes with a significantly higher penalty than those issued as a result of earlier inspections.” Amazon has 60 days to submit a written plan “to abate the safety issues.” The state’s safety inspectors told Business Insider that “if the pace of work doesn’t change, what they’re working on isn’t going to be the complete solution.”
Amazon has 15 working days to appeal. Should the company do so—which seems likely, given that it’s appealing the previous citations—the Department of Labor and Industries will have to prove that Amazon violated a federal regulation stating that employers have a “general duty” to provide a workplace free of “recognized” safety hazards. The agency cannot accuse Amazon of violating a specific safety standard for musculoskeletal injuries because no such standard exists in Washington state or at the federal level—even though ergonomic injuries, as they’re more commonly known, are the leading cause of work-related injury and disability and have helped fuel the opioid epidemic. In fact, the federal government is effectively barred from issuing an ergonomics rule, and the blame for that falls partly on the Clinton administration.
In the waning days of Bill Clinton’s presidency, his Occupational Safety and Health Administration actually enacted safety regulations to protect workers from precisely these kinds of injuries. But in April 2001, during the Bush presidency, the OSHA standard was repealed by a Republican-controlled Congress thanks to the Congressional Review Act of 1996, which allows Congress to strike down federal rules by a fast-track, up-or-down vote within 60 legislative days of the rule’s issuance. Once a rule has been repealed by the CRA, the agency can never again issue one that is “substantially the same.” If Clinton’s Department of Labor had moved more decisively to enact ergonomic safety regulations earlier in his presidency, or if Clinton himself had not signed Newt Gingrich’s CRA into law, work in an Amazon warehouse today would be much safer.
The 1980s saw a rising tide of labor activism around repetitive stress injuries. The Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union filed the first OSHA complaint for ergonomics hazards in 1979, but in the absence of a specific ergonomics safety rule, unions focused on company record-keeping violations instead of directly targeting safety hazards. The relatively high unionization rates of the time were essential to the success of these efforts, as unions, lacking OSHA standards, used the citations to negotiate ergonomics protections for their members in union contracts. However, public health and worker advocates saw the need to expand ergonomic protections to all workers, union and nonunion alike. In 1990, Republican Secretary of Labor Elizabeth Dole initiated the process to establish an ergonomics standard.
The stage was set, it seemed, for a new safety rule protecting workers. But Clinton’s secretary of labor, Robert Reich, moved cautiously. In keeping with Clinton’s promise to “reinvent government,” Reich first pushed for voluntary guidelines rather than enforceable rules. As one health and safety expert remembered, Reich asked her, “Do you want the entire business community in the United States to come down on our heads?” While progress was slow during Clinton’s first two years, the ergonomics effort soon ran into the buzzsaw of a profound conservative backlash to regulation and the legitimacy of the administrative state. The sweeping victory of Republicans in the 1994 midterm elections ushered in Newt Gingrich as speaker of the House.
The new Republican majority painted OSHA as a symbol for bureaucratic overreach. Freshman Representative John Boehner called the agency “the Gestapo of the Federal government.” Representative Cass Ballenger, a star Republican fundraiser, recalled that attacking OSHA was his most successful pitch to donors:
I’d say, “Guess who might be chairman of the committee who’d be in charge of OSHA?” And they’d say, “Who?” And I’d say, “Me!” And I’d say, “I need some money.” And—whoosh!—I got it. This was my sales pitch: Businessmen, wouldn’t you like to have a friend overseeing OSHA?
The Republican leadership introduced the Safety and Health Improvement and Regulatory Reform Act of 1995, which proposed shrinking OSHA’s budget and defanging its enforcement powers. Throughout the decade, Republican legislators used appropriations riders and other tactics to delay or prevent the agency from issuing a rule. Advocates for the OSHA standard recalled years later that ergonomics became a symbol of the wider business campaign against regulation. Policy arguments were drowned out by furious rhetoric condemning big government.
Industry-friendly academics also threw sand in the gears of agency rulemaking. Echoing the tobacco and fossil fuel industries’ strategy of weaponizing scientific uncertainty as a cudgel against regulatory action, the business lobby insisted on more research to prove regulation was necessary, demanding “randomized controlled trials” to prove a causal link between safety standards and injury rates. The rise of “cost-benefit analysis,” which requires regulators to quantify things like the “statistical value of a human life” before enacting rules protecting workers, also helped businesses slow down the pace of regulation.
Nonetheless, in November 2000, after more than 15,900 comments were received and public hearings resulting in 18,337 pages of transcripts from 714 witnesses were conducted, the OSHA rule was finally issued. It required businesses to establish an ergonomics program once they received reports of musculoskeletal injuries or persistent symptoms of such injuries. The rule left substantial flexibility to companies as to how they would reduce the risk of injury, as long as they conducted a proper job hazard analysis and implemented reasonable controls. The goal of the rule was precisely to require companies to adhere to the bodily limits that Amazon seems determined to push beyond.
What would Amazon look like today had the OSHA standard not been repealed? Amazon has grown furiously in the years since the defeat of the ergonomics standard, from 37,000 employees in 2010 to 1.3 million in 2020. Throughout this time, the workers who built the company have had virtually no legal protection against pain and injury. Could Amazon have grown as fast and as large as it did were it required to protect workers from ergonomic injuries? While Amazon portrays itself as a master of technical prowess and automation, meeting the commitments of Amazon Prime requires a large dose of brute force human effort. Human beings still have to stow incoming products onto the robotic “pods,” pick the items off the pods to fulfill orders, and pack the orders in boxes and tape them shut. Meanwhile electronically surveilled, subcontracted “last mile” delivery drivers sprint from their trucks to customers’ doors while urinating in bottles to hit the company’s delivery targets.
Workers at the Amazon fulfillment center in Kent have to work so quickly, according to the state’s safety inspectors, that “it broke the model” used to measure the risk of injury. Had the ergonomic standard survived, Amazon would have had to balance its delivery goals against worker safety. In its absence, Amazon is left with a mostly free hand to utilize brute force to meet its delivery promises. The toll can be measured in a rising toll of pain.